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Hallway serenades: WA nursing homes battle virus and 'social isolation'

caption: Music therapist Joe Kaufman performs "Fly Me to the Moon" for quarantined nursing home residents in Queen Anne.
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Music therapist Joe Kaufman performs "Fly Me to the Moon" for quarantined nursing home residents in Queen Anne.
Courtesy of Aegis Living

In nursing homes across Washington State, daily routines of meals, outings and visitors have given way to precautions over the coronavirus. With families separated from their loved ones, employees are trying to manage anxiety on all sides.

Governer Jay Inslee announced new restrictions to protect nursing home residents on March 10. They include medical screenings and less access for visitors.

“So we have to look at how do we combat the social isolation, and it forces us to be extremely creative," said Chris Corrigall, vice president of life enrichment for Aegis Living.

They have 1,200 residents in assisted living and memory care facilities in the Seattle area. Corrigall said those residents have had to stay in their rooms for the past week.

To keep them engaged, he said the staff prepared hundreds of tablet computers with everything from TED Talks to exercise videos. They also distribute paper packets with Sudoku puzzles and short stories.

And while they can’t have sing-alongs, their staff can serenade residents from the hallway.

“Some of our music therapists will go right outside the door and play their favorite songs, we’re trying to make this a really meaningful personalized experience,” he said.

Favorites include “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” ”You Are My Sunshine” and perhaps the most-requested: “Fly Me to the Moon.”

“I don’t know what senior living would do without Frank Sinatra, I really don’t,” he said.

Video chats with residents’ families are also key – for those inside and outside the facility’s walls. Corrigall said they’ve had to step up with a lot of communication during the quarantine.

“We’re sending out information every single day, giving a recap, sending photographs to the families,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of stress naturally and understandably from the family members over their loved ones, because they can’t physically visit them right now.”

Residents have been diagnosed with coronavirus in one Aegis facility, in Redmond. They’ve had thirteen cases including one death. Corrigall said they haven’t had any staffing shortages so far, but they’ll have to keep coming up with new ways to help residents get through this difficult time.

“What we’re trying to do is be four or five or six steps ahead and anticipate that this could be a little bit longer," he said. "And if it is longer, how are we going to continue to engage our residents.”

Meanwhile family members describe waving to their loved ones from the sidewalks outside nursing homes. Or in some cases singing to them.

caption: Lisa Newton and her daughter Katrina Hendrickson perform a song while Newton's parents watch from their balcony.
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Lisa Newton and her daughter Katrina Hendrickson perform a song while Newton's parents watch from their balcony.
Courtesy of Lisa Newton

Lisa Newton has been worried about her 93-year-old parents, who both live at the Hearthstone in Greenlake and suffer from dementia. She found herself with her daughter singing Rogers and Hammerstein from the sidewalk outside their building last week, as her parents watched from a balcony.

They staged an impromptu performance of songs from the musical "Cinderella." Then her son played “Bolero” on his clarinet. Newton says she got creative because she’s worried that the isolation is taking a toll on her parents.

“I have noticed an increased progression when talking to them on the phone in the last two weeks, and the lack of mental stimulation is having a negative impact on them,” she said.

Staff helped her parents catch the performance. It was a light moment at an anxious time.

“I may never see my parents again, other than shouting at them from the sidewalk ... It’s just ... it’s sad," Newton said.

According to their website, the Hearthstone has had two staff members, one resident and an outside contractor test positive for COVID-19.

With families on the outside, it’s certified nursing assistants like Shelly Hughes who must reassure nursing home residents in person.

“One of the more difficult things to deal with is how afraid our residents are,” she said. "A lot of people just sit and watch the news all day, and you know, they’re very concerned.”

She said some family members typically visit daily and help feed their relatives at meal times, so the staff lacks that support now as well.

Hughes works at a skilled nursing facility in Bellingham. She said gowns and masks are now kept locked up, and they have restrictions on working at more than one facility – they must have a two-day separation between different workplaces.

Or they can “choose” one facility and seek more shifts there.

Hughes said her workplace has not had any coronavirus cases yet, and staff members are trained in infection control, but of course they’re worried too.

“None of us want to get sick and take it home to our families, and none of us want to get sick and bring it into our facility,” she said.

Hughes says conditions in her field were dire before the outbreak, but now they’re in the public eye.

“Direct caregivers and just a lot of people in nursing homes aren’t making a lot of money, they don’t have affordable healthcare, they work multiple jobs. It’s hard to miss days if you don’t have sick time. And it’s created this situation that we’re finding ourselves in.”

She calls the cluster of deaths at the LifeCare nursing home in Kirkland “heartbreaking,” and said she hopes some future good can come of the scrutiny they’re receiving.

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